The message of Pope Francis, in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), seems to be this: there must be rules. Only tough rules can express the absoluteness of the gospel. Without these rules it will be diluted, its saving force depleted. But the Church must apply these rules with Christlike tenderness and mercy, rather than with legalistic rigour. It must be tolerant of innovators on the edge, testing the boundaries. But it must uphold the core rules, even if they seem harsh. For this harshness corresponds to the absoluteness of the ideals of Christianity. We may all struggle to live up to these ideals, but we need absolute standards to aim for – we need to try, and fall short, in the right direction. Unless Church teaching firmly censures abortion, divorce and homosexuality, the ideal of family life will be lessened.
But can the absoluteness of Christianity be translated into a few core rules? Doesn’t the New Testament move away from specific rules, telling us to pursue a moral perfectionism that can’t be codified? Yes, Jesus condemned divorce, but the thing that is most often condemned in the New Testament is legalism.
The document idealises the family in a way that’s not very true to the New Testament. It implies that there is a Right Way to be human – the traditional family. At one point it says: ‘Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us.’ The icon? I’m not sure what St Paul would think of this: he said that Christians should marry if they couldn’t rein in their desires, which is giving the institution rather less than three cheers. And Jesus did not glorify the family in the rose-tinted style of this document, rather he spoke of his disciples as his true family. Catholic teaching tries to capture the moral perfectionism of the gospel in an ideal of the family, which is too limited.